These are some things I have learned over the years to help myself sleep like a baby. FYI, though I mention a little science, it’s from personal experience and from memory, and is subject to errors. Feel free to correct me. This is not a researched article.
I took a three-hour nap today. It was awesome. I welcome your comments to make this even better!
- Sleep in the right position(s) with the right cushions
- Make sure the temperature and air flow works for you
- Work with the melatonin/cortisol cycles
- Work with the light/dark cycles
- Manage your activity and eating to prepare the mind and body for good sleep
- Keep the body flexible and healthy to avoid cramping at night
It is ideal that your muscles rest in a neutral position to avoid creating aches and pains that can wake you up or disturb your quality of life while you are awake. Lying in a prone position (on your belly) at night can be fine, as long as the bed is not too soft or your pillow too high to create a deep arch in the low back.
Lying on the back is fine, but avoid using too thick of a pillow or you may lose some of the natural cervical spinal curve in the neck. You may not really need a pillow at all when lying on the back. Too soft of a bed may also cause the hips to sink too far down into the bed, so one can use pillows to support the hips if the mattress cannot be exchanged. Sometimes pillows placed under the knees can take pressure off the low back. It is recommended to stretch the front of your legs in the morning if pillows are used under the knees, however.
Side-lying positions can be really ideal. Wisdom from yogic traditions tells us that sleeping on the right side is the most conducive to falling asleep quickly. While you sleep on the right side, the left nostril opens for breathing. Having the left nostril open correlates to right brain stimulation, which is more likely to lead to a sleeping state.
In a side-lying position, a pillow should be kept between the knees to keep the knees in line with the hips. A pillow (or two) should be placed under the head to keep the head in line with the spine. How many pillows you use depends on how wide the shoulders are and how soft your bed is. Also, a pillow can be encircled with the arms in front to keep the elbow in horizontal line with the shoulder, to prevent the shoulders from collapsing forward too much while you sleep.
Most people are comfortable sleeping with the temperature around 60-70 degrees, but this depends on the amount of heat the body releases at night. Some bodies will give off more heat than others.
If you get too hot while you sleep, you may not sleep comfortably. It is recommended to use linens and clothing that allow air circulation to your skin, such as cotton. Tighter-woven linens or manufactured fabrics may prevent air circulation so if you get too hot at night, try using lighter cotton sheets with a lower thread count or change clothing to natural fibers to allow the skin to breathe.
Muscles can also get too cold if exposed to cold, circulating air at night, and can cause muscle cramping. If you wake up with sore muscles, try shutting off fans at night that blow directly across the skin, or cover the sensitive, exposed skin with clothing.
In terms of hormones, the cortisol/melatonin cycle determines when we feel awake and when we feel sleepy. Cortisol is depleted during the day and melatonin levels rise. When melatonin levels peak, we feel most sleepy and need to rest. During rest, cortisol levels climb and melatonin is depleted. At peak cortisol, the body awakens.
Sleep can be disturbed when the melatonin/cortisol balance is disturbed. Often stress will throw off the cortisol balance during the day.
Stress causes the adrenals to release more cortisol during the day. After a cortisol release, the body naturally wants to exercise, then rest to increase your melatonin to balance the stress/cortisol spikes. Managing your stress is an important factor in being able to keep your body rhythms on cycle.
UV light also plays a part in sleep rhythms. The body becomes stimulated by light and sleepy in the dark. Sleep can be disturbed by too much exposure to blue light or UV light too close to bedtime. If you have trouble sleeping and live in a climate with sunlight in the evening, it may help to wear sunglasses in the few hours before bed to start to trick the body into thinking night is coming. Use an eye cover if you are trying to sleep and become aware of too much light.
There are also software programs that dim your computer screen so that not as much blue light reaches the eyes after a certain time of day. Although zoning out to tv images can help you wind down, it is not recommended to watch the television before sleeping because it can be light-stimulating, and if it is left on, sound is the first thing that usually disturbs someone’s sleep.
Keeping your bedtime consistent is the easiest way to keep your body rhythms on track.
Preparing the Body for Sleep – Winding Down
During deep REM sleep, the muscles of the body are completely relaxed (not being sent messages by your brain to fire), and the brain and thoughts are uncontrolled by the conscious mind. Therefore, if you wish to fall asleep, it is wise to prepare the body for this state and not expect it to just automatically shut down on your command.
Ideas to relax the body:
- Do not stimulate the body for 2-3 hours before you wish to sleep. Stimulating activities include exercise with exertion, or taking in substances which stimulate the body (caffeine, sugary, spicy foods, etc.)
- Take a warm bath or shower. Again, avoid stimulation, so not too hot and not too cold.
- Magnesium is the relaxation mineral. You could take a magnesium/calcium supplement an hour before bedtime to aid the muscles in relaxation if your diet is low in magnesium.
- Don’t eat a whole meal in the 2 hours before bed. Digestion shuts down somewhat while you sleep and you will wake up feeling like things are fermenting in your stomach instead of digesting (because they are!)
- Actively tense and relax each muscle group before bed to ensure the muscles all feel relaxed
Ideas to relax the mind:
- Do not stimulate the mind in the hour before you wish to sleep. Avoid hyperfocused activities and activities which produce anxiety, like tasks which require decisions or concentration.
- Listen to calming music, not stimulating music
- Learn mental relaxation techniques to release attachments to thoughts and worries. The more you can let your mind be free and let your thoughts swirl around and weave together without your controlling them, the better you can approximate what the unconscious brain does while you dream. Allow your thoughts to not make sense right before you want to sleep, just lay back and enjoy the show!
Keep the body supple and make resting a habit:
An overworked and under-rested body will tend to cramp up at night. Take time throughout the day to incorporate resting between periods of working and sleep will come much more easily. Learn a daily stretching routine that helps you relax and lengthen your muscles to their optimal resting length. Incorporate non-pattered movements into your day to avoid hyper-focusing the muscles on any one activity. Mix it up!